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How to set up a fashion business in Singapore

Most of us have an idol: be it a fictional character, a rock star or a politician, it’s someone who inspires us. But we often overlook the real heroines in life – mothers. We share the stories of three expats – Joanna Johnston, Wendy Morton-Edwards and Sara Taseer – who are successful entrepreneurs, inspiring modern women and, on top of it all, loving parents. We spoke to them about motherhood, parenting, their careers, being an independent woman in a modern world and how they strike the ideal balance between business and family. They prove that women can have it all – a wonderful family, a successful business and good style to boot. They’re an inspiration and role models for the next generation, especially their daughters.

Joanna Johnston, 52, Founder and Managing Partner, Anna Rainn

If you had asked Joanna more than twenty years ago how many children she’d like, she would have told you “none” without hesitation. She even told her then boyfriend, now husband, “If you want kids, don’t marry me.” Motherhood had never crossed her mind until she turned 30. She recalls, “I think it was my clock ticking away. I’m sure it’s nature’s way of making sure we survive.” A year later, Kate was born.

“My daughter and I are like friends,” she says, “but I’m a mother first.” While most children try to avoid their parents in the cyber world, she and Kate are not only friends in real life but Facebook friends too.

There are perks to being “friends” online. A couple of months ago, Joanna flew to the UK to visit Kate, who is studying there. She couldn’t stand the idea of missing out on her daughter’s 21st birthday so she dropped one of Kate’s friends a Facebook message and planned a surprise dinner with ten of her friends.

Joanna has established open communication with her daughter rather than dictating a million rules – a method she believes helps avoid the rebellious attitude often associated with teenagers. Now that her two children have grown into independent young adults, Joanna fills her time by taking up challenging roles. For example, she became the Chairman of the Dutch Chamber of Commerce Singapore when it was launched in 2008. As if that wasn’t enough to keep her busy, she also set up a fashion business, Anna Rainn.

In the two years since she started it, Anna Rainn’s signature wrap dresses have become a big hit. Whenever Joanna uploads photos of a new collection on Facebook, she gets many calls and messages from customers asking her to reserve a garment for them.

Joanna proves that women can make a career switch at any age, even in their 50s. Jumping into fashion from a company that deals with the internet and technology was a huge leap. “It was completely different. I had no fashion or retail experience.” She believes that her picky attitude contributes to the success of her business. For example, a dress with a minor stitching flaw will be either fixed promptly or sent back to the factory.

Like many start-up entrepreneurs, Joanna and her business partner, Grainne Keyes, began selling from home. “Then we needed to be somewhere neutral, so we rented a space in Orchard Towers.” She jokes about how when her children visited her there, they told the taxi uncle that their mum was working at Orchard Towers. It wasn’t good for the brand, she admits, so Anna Rainn moved to Great World City.

You can find Joanna in the store on most days; she loves meeting her customers, which include local and expat women and even men. “A man came into our store once and bought a dress for himself. We didn’t ask any questions!”

In line with Joanna’s personal style mantra: “comfortably elegant”, Anna Rainn dresses must be comfortable. But, believe it or not, she does get cold here.

“Everything is air-conditioned!” she exclaims. “How much time do you actually spend outside? I bring a cardigan to work because the mall is so cold.” Having lived in Singapore for 27 years, Joanna has probably had time to get used to the weather.

Anna Rainn
#01-27A Great World City
9677 3024 | annarainn.com

Wendy Morton-Edwards, 41, Creative Director and Founder, Firefly

Every success story has an “aha moment”. Wendy’s occurred while she was trekking the Himalayas in Nepal. At the time, she had a job many would die for: at the age of  27, she’d been headhunted by MTV, which was looking for someone with a strong business background, specifically in yield management. For three years, she travelling around the world from one celebrity-infested party to another. But she wasn’t satisfied and was craving more adventure.

So she replaced her high-flying briefcase with a backpack and travelled the world for a year. Sometimes sleeping at places that cost $2 a night, she trekked from Central Africa to South Africa before going to India. “It got me thinking that you don’t need a steady income to survive.”

Inspired by the colours she saw in India, Wendy pursued her passion for fashion. Ten years later, the Firefly label has become a huge success that is stocked by over 100 retailers, mainly in Australia but also in the UK, the Caribbean, America and Asia, including Singapore. There’s no secret to her success, she says, but “being able to use an Excel spreadsheet very well” contributed greatly. “When you’re in the fashion business, it’s 70-percent business and 30-percent actual designing.”

Wendy manages a huge team and oversees Firefly distribution across the globe, with new lines launching soon. How does she find time for her family, or even for herself? “My family time is my ‘me time’,” the bubbly 41-year-old confesses. The longest she’s been away from Phoebe, her four-year-old daughter, was for two straight weeks.

When she’s not travelling back and forth between Australia and Singapore, Wendy spends quality time with her family at Tanjong Beach Club on Sentosa. And on the rare occasion that she does have “me time”, she meets her girlfriends for drinks and dinner.

For her personal style, she opts for comfortable dresses from her own line – one of the perks of being a designer! Though this fashion chameleon will rock an edgy leather skirt in London or a sundress in Australia, in Singapore, it’s all Firefly, day and night.

Firefly#02-24 Cluny Court
9238 3747 | fireflyonline.com.au

Sara Taseer, 43, Director and Founder, Sara Taseer Fine Jewellery

“On Mother’s Day, my children create handmade cards, bake for me and surprise me with breakfast in bed. I really enjoy their pampering!” says Sara Taseer. Working hard to help her children achieve complete, happy and successful lives, she says she strives to set a good example and instil the right values.

When Sara’s children were babies, she recalls, her sleep suffered and she did not eat properly. “Now that they are a little older, the issues are more around school and friends. But, luckily, my children don’t give me much trouble. Of course it’s early days yet!”

It’s important not to be too protective, she says. Children need to be exposed to all kinds of behaviour and experiences. “The key is to instil in them the moral and ethical values that will allow them to make the right decisions.”

Being a mother of three is tricky. Each child has their own interests and Sara makes sure they get to pursue their passions. Despite a demanding career – Sara is the founder and designer of fine jewellery label Sara Taseer – she sets aside one-to-one time with her children; to read books with her youngest daughter, Sonia, go cycling with her son, Faiz, and catch a movie with her teenage daughter, Meera. “As a family, we all love to travel – we’ve been to Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Burma, and we just came back from Vietnam.”

Although Sara embraces the fun side of life, it’s not all play and no work. This go-getter believes family and career can exist hand in hand. “I think it’s important to have a purpose beyond just raising children or looking after a husband. When you’re in the best frame of mind and take good care of yourself, you are better able to care for others.”

One thing she learned from her own mother is that women must realise that it’s possible to start a career at any age, even fulltime mothers who wish to join the corporate world. “My mother took up a legal career in her late 30s after being a housewife, and has done extremely well. She taught me that it was possible to build a career at any stage in one’s life.”

When Sara’s not running her jewellery empire, she loves dressing up in flowing gowns and the occasional sari to attend parties and events. It’s not always luxury and high-end glamour, though. Sara may wear a five-figure jewel around her neck, but sometimes mixes it up with funky accessories and neon jelly shoes. But that’s a look she reserves for weekends and holidays, she says.

Sara Taseer Fine Jewellery
#02-15 Hilton Hotel Shopping Gallery
6235 8860 | sarataseer.com